College-Age Missions Questions

I was never a part of one of those groups— mission organizations that focus on college-age students both as active ministers and recipients of ministry. I won’t name groups because there are so many of them (both big and little) and they vary so much. I have often wondered about them.

As I said I wasn’t directly part of such a group. In college, I worked at a Christian summer camp for 9 or 10 weeks a year. That was very intense ministry, but it was temporary— having no impact on the remaining 40+ weeks a year. I also did ministry work at a children’s home— 2 hours a week of youth ministry on Sundays and 2 hours a week of tutoring on Tuesdays. Again, these had little impact on the remaining 164 hours a week.

The groups I am talking about are ones that:

  • Presses for a strong group identity. Your primary identity is being in this particular group. In some cases, this identity competes with their church identity.
  • Use language (missionary, minister, and so forth) that identifies them in recognized strong vocational roles with high expectations, rather than words such as volunteer or member.
  • Places them in a strong parachurch hierarchy with high expectations of obedience and submitting one’s own will to the vision and mission of the group.
  • Has high standards for busy-ness and ministering, with metrics kept to track the activity.
  • Often also serve as fund-raisers for the organization— either directly trying to fund the organization, or indirectly fund it by raising their own support (which is given to the organization)

Are these good or bad? Or a bit of both? I have seen some of the tracking used for some groups. They will ask their “missionaries” to weekly or monthly to list their evangelistic contacts and their responses. They will ask stats on follow-ups and discipleship. To me these are probably reasonable things to ask, especially if the young adults are being supported financially by the organization. They may ask regular feedback on their “spiritual life” as least in terms of spiritual disciplines, life milestones/significant events, and relational conflicts. These can be reasonable if the organization is doing real one-on-one mentorship. Otherwise it may be a bit intrusive. Some will ask for weekly or monthly updates on all the contacts the young adult has done to raise support and what responses and promises have been made to give to the ministry.

This last one is a bit creepy. I have on occasion had people from these groups come to try to raise money from my wife and I. I think there is still the vestiges of the old belief that Western missionaries have money in the collective mindset in Asia. This myth is generally not true, and each year becomes less and less true.

In theory, I don’t have problems with young people seeking to raise money for their ministry. In some cases it makes sense. My wife and I have done almost NO fundraising, and we have been able to survive…. but I in no way want to suggest that this should be normative. I don’t agree with Corrie Ten Boom that her personal conviction not to do formal fundraising should be universalized to everyone. (She only developed that conviction after she was well-known enough to not really need promote herself.) However, this issue does start to bring us into the “real problems” in my mind.

  1. Conflict between Parachurches and Churches. I like to say that the conflict between parachurches and churches is normal, because parachurches are parasitic and churches are selfish. This may be an oversimplification, but it is pretty true. Parachurches often seek to pull manpower and money out of the church. Sometimes, there is clear competition with churches. One large such organization famously encouraged their converts NOT to join a local church. A small organization that a friend of mine was part of decided to structure itself like a church to keep its members from being part of different local churches. Adding to that, young people going around and actively soliciting money from the deeper pockets of the church community, and one can see where some of the animosity comes from. I am not against parachurches. I have both founded parachurches and am (perhaps, depending on how one defines the term) a member of more than one presently. In the early years we got into some competitive conflict with at least one local church. We had to work hard to undo that and set up standards to avoid repeating that.

2. There is a risk of abuse. While we often think of those in the transition from teen years to adult years as stubborn and unmanageable, that is not necessarily the case. Some are genuinely seeking a sense of purpose and identity and lack the life experience to identify a good organizational relationship versus a bad. Some of the groups seem pretty legitimate in their recruiting and their team expectations. However, I have personally seen some that most definitely preferentially filter so as to have those who are more passive/malleable. I have seen some groups that use the “follow Christ versus follow family” inappropriately to drive a wedge between the young person and their own family/community. <Of course, this is not just a parachurch thing. Many churches do the same thing, and some utilize MLM principles to manipulate new members.>

3. Sometimes these types of ministries attract the wrong types of people. I have seen several religious leaders get involved with college-age ministries and it seems as if they do it because of power. Pastors, businessmen, politicians, bureaucrats, and more want to have power. Go online and look up books on leadership, and you will see there is a great thirst for power and influence both inside and outside of religious communities. The thing is that college-age ministries give opportunity to exercise power at a much higher level due to the fact that normal power dynamics are accentuated due to larger gap in age, experience, and finances. I have seen good people in these roles, but I have seen some who really power trip. I knew one who expected to have control over who dated and who married who in their organization. When they were involved in sports activities, he expected to be on the winning team every time. Things did not go well if this did not happen. Obviously we know all too well the religious leaders who utilized their influence and age difference to manipulate children and young adults for their own (often sexual) gratification.

4. Sometimes these parachurches are idealized and seen as models for churches. I have seen churches embrace vision and mission statements similar to these groups. I have seen churches embrace high pressure mission requirements and metrics— pressuring people to make promises regarding giving, evangelizing, discipling, and the like. At one time this seemed like a good idea to me. Churches aren’t doing enough and they should change to pull their own weight. But I have had to reconsider. I have been active in many many churches over the years. There are dead, lifeless, churches that I don’t understand why anyone attends. But there are probably good things about them. I have also seen churches that utilize some of the high pressure motivational tactics of parachurch groups and MLMs. These seem exciting at first because they feel like they are “doing something.” However, over time, the church begins to feel toxic. It doesn’t feel like a community. It doesn’t feel like a family. It feels like being a tool of the vision of the leader (again, a bit like an MLM… multi-level marketing business, since I haven’t identified the initials before). It feels like a place to avoid rather than attend. Then there are churches that focus on fellowship and community. They certainly have ministries and activities, but they don’t try to dominate the lives of their members, but enhance their lives. They don’t look like they are doing as much their parachurch counterparts, but I would argue that they are doing more of what they are called to do— be the body of Christ— the embodiment of, in some small way, the rulership of God on earth.

So are these groups bad. No. In fact, some have done some great things. But one has to watch out for the temptations. Bad leaders are not always easy to identify. They seem fine until the power they secretly (or even subconsciously) sought is not given. The temptations to control and manipulate. Years ago we ran a children’s ministry, and much of the volunteers were high school age, approaching college. It was amazing sometimes the level of investment they would make in ministry. It took a certain amount of leader discernment to ensure things do not go bad.

  • We would avoid trying to put a wedge between the worker and their family. In fact, we would, when we could, work with their families. On those rare occasions where there was tension between the volunteer and their family, we would tell them to honor their family wishes.
  • We made no pressure to come between their school responsibilities and their ministry responsibilities. Their school responsibilities come first. This (and the family one before) seem obvious but many groups do expect highest commitment.
  • We made no pressure to come between their church and their ministry responsibilities. Many of them chose to join the church we were part of. We had no problem with that, but those that did not we put ZERO pressure to switch churches. If anything we sought for them to stay at their present churches so that our ministry could seen as interdenominational, non-sectarian. (On more than one occasion we did actually have conflict with our own pastors because they wanted the ministry to be used as a way of pulling people into our own church.)
  • We created a very flat organizational structure with limited power dynamics. As such, the opportunity for abuse is limited, and the temptation towards positions of power is reduced.
  • We focused on opportunities to grow and do, rather than pressure and metrics to perform.

We did this successfully for a few years. We ended up shutting down the ministry after Typhoon Pepeng (2009) because we decided to change focus at that time. Many of the youth workers continued on in various church ministries, and one of the ministry sites continued on for another 10 years without our leadership. This reminds me of a story of sorts. When I worked at a Summer Camp, we got a new director. One thing he did early on was put up a sign that said that “No One is Indispensable.” Of course that is true, but it is equally true of leaders. I believe that a healthy organization can survive without its leader. And even if the organization shuts down, its members thrive in new places to serve. (This was certainly true at the Summer Camp. That leader was fired some time later, and the camp endured and even thrived.)

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